It’s time for the Crown Prosecution Service to grow up
The Crown Prosecution Service is sometimes spoken of as the bastard stepchild of the criminal justice system. It is young (founded in 1986, it is only 26 years old), and it has not yet grown into a professional and robust prosecution service. Too often hiding or hidden behind the scenes, it is an invisible and misunderstood organisation.
While the CPS’s performance has improved dramatically in the last decade, there are still some troubling weaknesses. For example, the rise in guilty pleas since the mid 2000s has hidden the fact that the CPS is not very successful when its case is put to the test. Excluding guilty pleas, the CPS is successful in just 60% of Magistrates’ Court cases and just 30% of Crown Court cases.
In 2011/12, one in ten prosecutions was dropped after a charge is laid; most of these cases had enough evidence to proceed but were dropped for public interest reasons or for circumstances such as a witness not attending. Dropped prosecutions are a frequent source of friction between police and prosecutors, as well as causing much of the CPS’s negative press. Furthermore, cases are dropped “in the public interest” on grounds that the public do not believe justify the drop. A recent survey found that 64% of the public do not agree with the CPS’s more common criteria for dropping prosecutions in the public interest.
The CPS wields significant discretion in its prosecution decisions, and these decisions should always be well explained, as well as being in line with public expectations. CPS leadership should be held to account for these decisions, but the CPS is only tenuously accountable to Parliament through the hands-off oversight of the Attorney General. There must also be better internal accountability for CPS leadership; in the 26 years of its existence, not one Chief Crown Prosecutor has been dismissed from the CPS.
In addition to being more accountable, the CPS needs to embrace its role as a public service and become more public-facing. In recent years, the organisation has moved in this direction, but it is incumbent on all CPS leadership to fulfil their role as public figures in the local criminal justice system. The public do not know enough about the CPS – 30% could not identify the CPS as the organisation responsible for securing convictions at court – and it is the CPS’s responsibility to build public awareness and confidence.
Too many in the CPS seem content to rest on the great improvements the service has made since its troubled beginning and adolescence. But if it is to justify its annual cost of nearly £600m and be affirmed as a valuable part of the criminal justice system, the CPS must finally mature into a professional, public-facing, and accountable operation.